Saturday, December 31, 2011

More Mission Statement Makeovers

Winding up the year, this is the last of three posts on the Mission Statement Makeover competition. Despite the caveat in the first post about writing a mission statement from the outside, our approach for these eight entries will be to suggest some wording for a mission statement and ask the organization—or others—to start a discussion that may ask further—and perhaps better—questions to hone in on the target. For background see the initial post and CI#7: On Mission.

As noted in previous posts, we are omitting organization names from the Makeover submissions. Organizations are welcome to mention them in the discussion thread.

7 Social enterprise

Mission statement:
[org] helps social enterprises understand their customers better and develop more appropriate products through collaborative relationships with local partners in developing countries. We work with a network of local partners who already have connections to diverse communities representing different geographies, socioeconomic status, and livelihoods in addition to deep understanding of local languages and cultures. This network allows us to match our social enterprise clients with their target markets with the level of depth they desire in a cost-effective manner. By consolidating demand, Root Alliance makes community-based market research and product testing affordable and accessible to our clients.

The case for a makeover:
“Our mission statement has a lot of information and we are having hard time to convey it in a succinct but effective manner.”

All the information you need to convey does not need to be in the mission statement. This statement should restrict itself to a compelling case for why the organization exists. The mission statement is the portal for a discussion. Its task is to make people want to go through and find out more (outsiders) or to remind them why they’re involved (insiders).

The essence of the long statement above seems to be “Support social enterprises in developing countries with community-based market research and product testing.” What does that misstate or leave out?

8 Community health

Mission statement:
[org]’s mission is to promote and champion the health and well being of all residents of our community, regardless of ability to pay, primarily through supporting excellence and innovation in the County’s hospital and clinic system.

The case for a makeover:
“Well, I had to look it up in order to write it down, unfortunately. And we are constantly saying ‘our mission is...’ and filling in the blanks with a variety of endings. I feel that if we had a robust and vital statement, or a something more concise/or catchy, our messaging would be much more clear! ”

How much of the current statement is verbal packing around the essential concept? What do you need to add to this: “Support health care delivery to all residents of San Mateo County, regardless of ability to pay”?

9 Experiential learning

Mission statement:
Recognizing that we are in a time of great change, [org] will collaborate with individuals and organizations to support empowering, experiential programs that develop 21st century life skills in interested 6-8th grade students in [name] County.

The case for a makeover:
“I wonder if it’s engaging/succinct enough to be effective in attracting support for our cause.”

Here is the message in fewer than half the words. “To support experiential programs that develop 21st century life skills in middle school students.” Does it leave out any essentials, or just flourishes?

10 Low income students

Mission statement:
[org]’s mission is to transform the lives of accomplished high school students from low-income families by broadening their dreams and preparing them for college success.

The case for a makeover:
“It has been mentioned by several board members that we need to change our mission statement.”

It would be helpful to know what changes your trustees think are needed. Here’s the message in half the words. What does this miss?

[org] prepares low-income, high-achieving high school students for success in college and beyond

11 Wildlife

Mission statement:
[org] is a nonprofit wild animal sanctuary and educational facility. We are dedicated to the lifetime care of abused, neglected, confiscated or unwanted wild animals to prevent them from being destroyed and education of the public to reduce human-wildlife conflicts.

The case for a makeover:
“WAY too wordy - but how do we possibly say it more smoothly?!”

There are two missions here, remediation and prevention: “lifetime care of abused or unwanted wild animals and education to reduce human-wildlife conflicts”

Is that a statement of your mission?

12 Mobility

Mission statement:
[org] is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to Expanding Horizons for persons with disabilities, and Maximizing Potential for disadvantaged persons by providing support in resolving personal transportation issues.

The case for a makeover:
“I find that this statement is too hard to follow and does not flow. We are pretty much a start up non profit and I think if this was worded better we may draw in more donations.”

Is your target population persons with disabilities, disadvantaged people, or both? Beyond that question, it’s not fully clear what you’re trying to do. The best we can do at this point still preserves that vagueness:

  • [org] provides transportation options for disadvantaged persons
  • [org] expands the horizons of disadvantaged persons through transportation options
Let’s see if we can discuss this a bit and get more focused.

13 Addiction

Mission statement:
[org]’s Mission is to lead, unify and empower addiction focused professionals to achieve excellence through education, advocacy, knowledge, standards of practice, ethics, professional development and research.

The case for a makeover:
“Our mission statement, adopted in 1998 has a lot of buzzwords, but doesn’t really capture who we are and what our focus is.”

What is your focus? The first thought that comes to mind is to combine your current mission and vision statements and edit down a bit:

To support addiction professionals in promoting the health and recovery of individuals, families and communities.

What else do you need to include?

14 Jazz

Mission statement:
The [name] Jazz Orchestra brings jazz for large orchestra of the highest quality, with full artistic integrity and in all its diversity for a national and international public

Is your mission “To create and present innovative, diverse orchestral jazz throughout the world?” High quality and artistic integrity might well be assumed. “Diversity” might need some clarification.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Mission Statement Makeover: Four more entrants

This post continues our review of entries in this year’s mission statement competition (see the previous post and CI#7: On Mission for background). More to follow.

As noted in the initial post, we are omitting organization names from the Makeover submissions. Organizations are welcome to mention them in the discussion thread.

3 Children’s services

Mission statement:
[org]’s mission is to ensure that children have the fundamental assets they need to thrive: a safe and secure home life; educational excellence and opportunity ; and health and sexuality education.

The case for a makeover:
“The mission statement as it stands is way too long. We need a statement that our employees can remember, something pithy and impactful. ”

The initial phrase of your current statement (“to ensure that children have the fundamental assets they need to thrive”) sounds like a broad statement of mission, but then to focus it more, you resort to what and how, rather than why.

There are two promising phrases at the end of the history section of your website:

“strengthen families and reduce the need for foster care [by] address[ing] the underlying causes of families in crisis”

This may be a mission statement. What do you think? We can discuss this using the comment feature.

4 Collaborative improvement initiative

Mission statement:
The [org]’s mission is to empower and improve the quality of life for [area] residents through catalytic investments and systematic change.

The case for a makeover:
“The [org]’s mission statement is an excellent candidate for a makeover because as a Living Cities Integration Initiative site, our work is unlike many other NPOs, who focus on one or two issues. We are focused on creating change across the public, private and philanthropic sectors through collaborative efforts in eight different areas in three short years. Our work is centered on causing this change in several adjacent neighborhoods that have drastically different socio-economic populations, built environments and private investment levels. At the center of our work are the people who make up the community we are working hard to serve. While our current mission statement reflects a very broad overview of what we do, it truly doesn’t express the difference our work strives to make for the people living and working in the [area]. As a project that is operating under the guidance of ten different organizations across a variety of sectors, we would like to learn how to develop a mission statement that address the global work of the project equally influenced by the collective work of all the organizations that make up our Governance Council. ”

Actually, “to improve the quality of life for [area] residents through catalytic investments and systematic change” seems to capture your mission quite well as you describe it in your makeover case. The other aspects of your effort—your disparate partners, sectors, and neighborhoods, the individual identities on your Governance Council, and your short time frame—can be captured in subsidiary statements that elaborate on the mission statement. If you try to say more in the base statement, you may just weaken its impact.

Often the best approach is to always post the mission statement (in print or on your website) with additional clarifying information: statements of vision, values, and/or principles, listings of your communities, council members and other partners, and some of the initiatives you have in process.

If this doesn’t sound like it’s the approach you need, let’s discuss through the blog’s comment feature and see what else we can discover.

5 Technology provider

Mission statement:
[org] is committed to assisting Jewish organizations in their efforts increase their professionalism and relationship-building capacity through the effective use of technology, by providing internet strategy, general technology, marketing and communications consulting, training and professional development opportunities. [org] believes that every Jewish organization should have the opportunity to function at this high level, regardless of the size of the organization or its budget, and we work to reduce barriers to achieving this level of service to their customers, members and prospects.

The case for a makeover:
“We have made a strategic shift in the last couple years, but the mission statement has not been updated. I feel it says more about our services than our mission. And completely does not capture the uniqueness of our work and impact in our field. ”

One simple and effective technique is to describe conversationally to an uninformed friend or relative what you’re trying to achieve. By listening to what you say, and by answering the basic questions you get in that conversation, you can often discover the nuggets you need for your more formal communications.

You’ve begun to do that in your case for a makeover. What is the strategic shift you have made, and why did you make it? What do you do differently? What are your most fundamental services within your list of “internet strategy, general technology, marketing and communications consulting, training and professional development opportunities”? Why? In what way are you unique? What is your impact?

You can pursue these questions on your own, or if you’d like to use the comment feature of the blog, we’ll ask you some more refined ones.

6 Design museum

Mission statement:
The [name] Museum of Design of the University of [x] is an educational and cultural institution that advances the understanding and appreciation of design and cultivates an awareness that designed objects can contribute to quality of life through effective solutions to human challenges and aesthetic satisfaction.

The case for a makeover:
“As a mission statement, it is long. [name] is an academic museum, so the staff was seeking to include connections to both the university and community in the statement. I would like to see the mission be more user-focused. ”

Within your current statement is what appears to a good core: “[to] advance the understanding and appreciation of design and its contribution to quality of life”. Do you need to say more than that? Everything else seems secondary, and can be accommodated in statements that typically accompany the mission statement.

“Effective solutions to human challenges and aesthetic satisfaction,” are really only two examples of the way design contributes to quality of life. Doesn’t flagging them unnecessarily restrict the mission?

Let’s discuss.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mission Statement Makeover: Overview and First Two Examples

Let’s start with a critical disclaimer: a quick external review can identify ways a mission statement seems to communicate poorly, but it cannot identify what a good mission statement would be for a particular organization. The best it can do is to point out some questions that the organization might need to ask to craft an effective statement of its mission.

If the owners of any of the statements discussed here would like to use the comment function to conduct a discussion, we may be able to dig a little deeper. From this discussion we will select one statement as the Mission Statement Makeover competition winner, and will offer additional assistance to that organization.


A mission statement can have a combination of objectives:

  • Externally it can:
    • attract and hold attention (differentiation, branding, positioning)
    • present the essence of the case for giving
  • Internally it can:
    • Inspire stakeholders
    • Provide clarity, focus and a reference point for prioritization
    • Strengthen strategic thinking
    • Structure planning (strategic, program, business, …)
    • Suggest metrics

To be most effective, a mission statement should be:

  • Simply stated, eloquent and concise
  • Memorable, differentiating and compelling
  • Appropriately focused (balancing specificity and breadth)
To serve these purposes, a mission statement should say why the organization exists and what it is, but should avoid getting into what it does. That level of detail can follow the statement of mission.


We are omitting organization names from the Makeover submissions. Organizations are welcome to mention them in the discussion thread.

1 Academic research center

Mission statement:
To enhance multilateral responses to global problems, including: conflict, humanitarian crises, and recovery; international security challenges, including weapons proliferation and the changing balance of power; and resource scarcity and climate change.

The case for a makeover:
“It’s too long, covers too much ground, too abstract; we are researchers—we do solid research, produce quality reports and have real impact on international policy, but we are terrible at communications.”

The statement lists what you do. What drives you to do these things? What is it about multilateral responses that is important? Perhaps start with a statement of vision, an aspirational view of the future, and see if that suggests some direction for mission.
How do you select issues? If you primarily serve as a resource for funded projects, how do you decide which projects are appropriate? If your mission is to shape international policy through research and publication, in what direction do you want to shape it, and why?
A clear sense of your mission may lie in the answers to these questions, or in the questions that those answers raise. Once you can achieve clarity, the rest of the work on a statement is just refinement.

2 Bridgers of the digital divide

Mission statement:
[institute] is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit charitable institution based in [place] that is dedicated to empowering hardworking economically disadvantaged students to bridge the digital divide and advance their academic and personal achievements by awarding them home PC computers. This is achieved by collecting donated computers, refurbishing, and reusing computers thereby extending their useful lives and reducing e-waste.

The case for a makeover:
“Our organization does great work, but our mission is wordy and confusing. We want a statement that best reflects the impact we make in [state] even as a small nonprofit. Our mission is very tangible yet has lasting impacts. Our mission is very robotic and we are much more of a fun and geeky crowd.”

Let’s start with some pruning. There seem to be two central concepts,
1. empowering hardworking economically disadvantaged students to bridge the digital divide
2. refurbishing, and reusing computers to reducing e-waste

This trimming gets you from 59 to 19 words; the rest is detail that can be noted elsewhere. Are both of these elements the essence of your mission? Or is #2 a side benefit? Would you be just as committed to your work if there were no computer recycling involved? Would you be just as committed if hardware were available elsewhere, and crossing the digital divide required tutoring in software? Depending on your answers to these questions, either #1 is close to a mission statement or perhaps you do #2 in order to achieve #1.

If you’d like, let’s continue this exploration through discussion in the comment box.

More statement examples will follow over the next few days.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Second Annual Mission Statement Competition Winner

Our four finalists this year exemplify four different approaches to the crafting of a mission statement.

  • Cancer Connection (dedicated to encouraging and guiding people living with cancer and their loved ones along the cancer journey, from diagnosis through treatment and beyond) describes its mission in a way that is especially effective for structuring a strategic plan and measuring performance. Last year’s winner took this approach.
  • EDGE Outreach takes a minimalist stance (empowers ordinary people to provide safe, clean drinking water to the world), relying on its mission statement for the impact of a tag line. With a very small tweak it might be even better as a statement of vision—a world where everyone has access to clean safe drinking water—but the notion of empowering “ordinary people” to become the solution is also a very compelling component of the mission.
  • As noted in the finalist post, Mohonk Preserve (to protect the Shawangunk Mountains by inspiring people to care for, enjoy, and explore the natural world) takes an intriguing approach of making broad values and actions (inspiring people to care for, enjoy, and explore the natural world) the means to achieving a more specific goal (protecting a specific natural area). This statement acknowledges the interdependence of the two scales and elegantly frames the context for the organization and the terms of its success.
Each one meets the criteria for excellence as described in our overview, On Mission. They are concise, memorable, compelling, and focus on the question of why the organization exists.

Our fourth—and winning—entry, Centerpoint Institute for Life and Career Renewal offers lifelong tools to navigate uncertainty, build meaningful careers, and design courageous lives. It is a vivid statement, in which there are no wasted words. As some of the many comments we received on this entry observed, it is infused with both passion and purpose, specificity and breadth, clarity and ambition.

In addition to the power of it mission statement, Centerpoint has an active group of supporters, who posted a dozen supporting comments on this blog and sent scores of other comments by e-mail. Congratulations, Centerpoint!

With these excellent examples as a stimulus, other nonprofits may want to ask what they can do to change their mission statements from obligatory boilerplate to powerful tools that add value to their cause.

To that end the next few posts will look at the entries in the Mission Statement Makeover category of the competition, and perhaps give a sense of how to think about editing an unwieldy statement.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mission Statement Finalists

Help us pick the winner

Last week we selected six semi-finalists in the Second Annual What’s Your Mission? Competition and presented them in our webinar What’s a Mission Statement Worth? From these six excellent statements, webinar attendees helped us to select the finalists.

The voting was grouped so closely that we have selected four finalists instead of three. Please take a look at the finalists (below) and help us to select the best of the best. Either e-mail your comments or post them to this blog. You’re welcome to make a pitch for your organization’s mission statement, but no anonymous comments please. We will consider and post only attributed comments. We’ll announce the winner in mid-December.

We’ll also be in touch with all of the Mission Statement Makeover entrants by then.

During the webinar we described the role of a mission statement, noted its critical characteristics, and shared examples of different kinds of successful—and almost successful—ones.

Briefly summarized, a mission statement has external and internal functions.

  • Externally, a mission statement is a branding and positioning tool that gets and holds the attention of the public, and underpins the case for giving.
  • Internally, a mission statement should inspire stakeholders, provide clarity and focus for operations, fortify strategic thinking, structure planning, and point to metrics that will indicate successes.

Some mission statements are very close to taglines, primarily aimed at grabbing attention; others are crafted more to differentiate one organization from others in the same field. Each nonprofit has its own set of issues, and somewhat different criteria for its mission statement. But in broad terms, a mission statement should articulate the essence of why your organization exists. It can encompass what you are, but should avoid explaining what you do and how. It should be accurate (specific, sufficiently broad, appropriately focused), accessible (concise, simply stated, jargon-free) and effective (differentiating, memorable, compelling).

For more detail on these points you can access the slides or a recording of the webinar and/or take a look at Critical Issues #7, On a Mission.

The Panel

Four of our presenters in the Wednesday Webinar series helped me to select the semifinalists:

  • Amy Sample Ward is a blogger, facilitator and trainer focused on using social technologies to build and support strong communities. She is the Membership Director at NTEN: Nonprofit Technology Network
  • Dalya Massachi helps nonprofit professionals advance their missions through fundraising and marketing materials—online and offline. Her recent book is entitled, "Writing to Make a Difference: 25 Powerful Techniques to Boost Your Community Impact”, and her consulting practice is Writing for Community Success.
  • Monica Collins is a nonprofit media and communications consultant. She started her career on staff at national and local newspapers. She appears on radio and syndicates a column nationally.
  • Rod Miller leads the global expert services firm Executive Institutional Advancement Exchange, bringing innovation and insight to empower leadership vision.

The Finalists

Cancer Connection is dedicated to encouraging and guiding people living with cancer and their loved ones along the cancer journey, from diagnosis through treatment and beyond.

Our panel recognized the vividness and positive attitude of the statement. I would add that it is framed in a way that forms a strong foundation for organizational strategy, a strategic plan, and meaningful metrics.
Dalya Massachi: “I like this! Clear direction and even creates a picture in the reader’s mind.”
Monica Collins: “Very good. Sublime, meaningful, heartfelt. How could anyone ask for anything more? ”
Rod Miller: “The statement hints nicely at the power to be found in why the organization exists.”

Centerpoint Institute for Life and Career Renewal offers lifelong tools to navigate uncertainty, build meaningful careers, and design courageous lives.

Amy Sample Ward: “I love that it is succinct yet provides pointed guides to where their programs and services will go.”
Rod: “Captures inspirational results tangibly.”
Taken with the organization’s name, this statement leaves little—or everything—to the imagination.

EDGE Outreach empowers ordinary people to provide safe, clean drinking water to the world.

Amy: “I really like that it includes both a direction for their work and a target for the audience/community to be involved.”
Monica: “Get it instantly. The mission statement is as crystalline as clean water.”
Both Dalya and Monica thought that the phrase water to the world feels a little too grand, compared to, say, water to those who need it, anywhere in the world. That is the dilemma of the mission statement—how to capture an essence minimally without losing specificity. Where that line is to be found is a matter of perception. Monica said that the statement piques her interest, and I agree that the simplicity of the statement and the promise of the approach combine to make me want to know more about the organization.

The mission of the Mohonk Preserve is to protect the Shawangunk Mountains by inspiring people to care for, enjoy, and explore the natural world.

Monica: “Very good. Very inspirational.”
Rod: “Nice focus on why your organization exists and the community need it serves.”
Amy: “I really like that they include a spectrum of engagement for the public.”
I especially like that it frames the specific cause (protecting one place) as having a much more general and life-enhancing effect. This is an unusual—and very effective—structure for a mission statement.

These are four exemplary statements. I would very much appreciate help in selecting the best of these best.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Second Annual What's Your Mission? Competition

A clear, concise, compelling, and memorable mission statement is the basis of a strong message, focused strategy, energized stakeholders and effective metrics.

Does your organization have a Great Mission Statement?
Or are you interested in getting some help with a Mission Statement Makeover?

Enter your nonprofit in the Second Annual What’s Your Mission? Competition.

Submit your entry by midnight on Friday, November 11, 2011.

Selected Great Mission Statement entries will be featured on and discussed in our blog. During our webinar What’s a Mission Statement Worth? on November 16, attendees will select three finalists, followed by an open forum to help select a winner. The winner will receive extensive publicity and a free day of consulting on any aspect of nonprofit strategy, planning or organizational development.

Mission Statement Makeover finalists will receive assistance in creating a new draft mission statement. The winner will receive additional help to take it through internal approvals, and then publicity.

Tips? On a Mission.
Questions? Click here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fall Season of (free) Webinars for Nonprofits

The fall 2011 season of (free) nonprofit professional development webinars launches today and features a great list of topics and expert presenters. Webinars every Wednesday at 1:00 Eastern/10:00 Pacific and at 3:00 Eastern/noon Pacific.

For descriptions and reservations click on the title in the box in the column to the right. For details on the full season schedule and the archive of past webinars, visit

September 21 1:00 pm EDT/10:00 am PDT
Budgeting & Forecasting for Nonprofits
Christian Wielage, PlanGuru

September 21 3:00 pm EDT/noon PDT
Effective Segmentation of Your Donor Database
Cheryl Weissman, CJW Consulting

September 28 1:00 pm EDT/10:00 am PDT
The Case for Integrated Planning
Sam Frank, Synthesis Partnership

September 28 3:00 pm EDT/noon PDT
Success with Nonprofit Auctions
Tom Weitbrecht, SA Bids

Profit-Making Ventures for Non-Profits: Promise & Peril
Marketing Communications
Logic Models
Handling Difficult Conversations
Corporate Transitioners
Best Practices in Planned Giving
State Compliance for Nonprofits
Successful Major Gift Moves

Hiring Solutions with LinkedIn
Social Media Engagement
Aligning Strategic Plan & Social Media
What’s a Mission Statement Worth?
All-Staff Fundraising: A New Model for Development

Conflict Resolution
Break Through the Media Clutter
HR Best Practices

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Capital Punishment

An article in today's New York Times tells of the woes of the American Folk Art Museum. Borrowed $32,000,000 to build a signature building. Failed to attract the attendance numbers or financial support they projected. Had to sell the building, with the proceeds only covering the debt. Consolidated into a small space that cannot support the fixed costs of the collection.

There are a number of typical nonprofit pitfalls in this story, topped by the need for the cushion of an endowment and the importance of tough minded projections of the impact of major investments. Build a spectacular attraction, and it still may be tough to compete for admissions.

While the building seems to have been a wash in this story—the sale of the building covered the debt, after all—the increased operating costs that came with expansion were likely a major factor in the museum's downfall.

As noted in prior posts about difficulties in other nonprofit sectors—see Is Salvation a Kroc? and Facilities and business plans—good preparation for a facility undertaking does not start with hiring an architect. It begins with overall stategy and planning (Understanding Facilities Part 1 and Part 2) and a comprehensive exploration of financial scenarios (Critical Issues 6: Financial Modeling).

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Develop Internal Capabilities or Outsource?

An article in the New York Times today, Groups Advocating for the Arts Feel the Pinch, addresses some fundamental issues for nonprofits. While the article focuses on advocacy alliances for small nonprofits, the questions it raises apply more broadly.

In a tough economy, donors may well cut support for umbrella organizations offering (sometimes essential) support services to other nonprofits in favor of giving directly to struggling organizations. How can the umbrellas and the dependent beneficiaries of their services make the best of the situation? Is there any way they can prepare for this possibility?

More broadly, what expertise does an organization need to have in-house to be able to make good strategic and business judgments, and what should it outsource in recognition that it can do more for its mission by focusing its attention and resources on what it does well?

When I was a corporate manager I worked for a company that virtually invented the corporate joint venture as a way of accessing the marketing and distribution expertise it needed in various industries to capitalize on materials developed in its research labs. While this approach allowed the company to build markets in disparate sectors that would have been much more difficult to enter on their own, there was a price to pay as well. By keeping product development, marketing and distribution at arm’s length, they never developed this expertise on their own. As new materials were developed in their labs over the years, the company lacked the market understanding required to identify and develop their full potential. By lowering the bar for developing each individual material into marketable products, the company had no learning curve for identifying and developing the next one.

Develop internal capabilities or outsource? There are short- and long-tem consequences to either option. A strategic discussion about the trade-offs may help to plot a sustainable course.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Philanthropy with a Side of Management

Several years ago I wrote an article for Trusteeship ( “To Build or Not to Build?”) about the preparation and due diligence needed by a governing board before a nonprofit should embark on a facility project. I began with a story about how, when a university board let costs on a building project run out of control, Peter Lewis (Progressive Insurance) cut off his giving to every charity in the city until all of the trustees resigned.

Mr. Lewis is in the news again, along with Pierre Omidyar (eBay), in yesterday's New York Times (“Philanthropists Start Requiring Management Courses to Keep Nonprofits Productive”). They have each required beneficiaries of their philanthropy to accept some management consulting services along with their financial support.

Many foundations offer grants for planning services or organizational development, but most do not tie a requirement for organizational development to a financial grant. Over the years I have heard many times from foundations that they couldn't make a grant conditional on accepting “technical support”. It would be interfering with the grantees’ prerogatives, and being imposed from the outside, would not work.

It is also worth noting that sometimes a gift restricted to donor priorities can be a real problem (see “Is Salvation a Kroc?”).

While I can understand those arguments, several organizations quoted in the Times article seem to have found the combination of financial support and organizational consulting to be very effective, even if they had their doubts at first.

In many nonprofits, especially startups, there is strong aversion to thinking like a business. But as I have noted before ( “Business Planning in Nonprofits”), “nonprofit” is a tax status, not a business plan. Budgets must be balanced, people managed, resources used well, if an organization is to be sustainable.

It would be interesting to get a more in-depth sense of how the efforts described in the Times are working, and whether the idea is catching on more broadly.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Nonprofit Webinars (free) Summer Offerings

The summer schedule of Wednesday Webinars is now being finalized, with a mix of popular returning presenters and some great new presenters and offerings. For details and (free) registration, click on the titles in the widget to the right. For the full season schedule, and the archive of past webinars, visit

July 13 1:00 pm EDT / 10:00 am PDT

Strategic Planning Part 1: Cultivation & Organizational Development
Sam Frank, Founder and Principal, Synthesis Partnership

Strategic planning should be a means not only to produce a strategy, but also to engage and cultivate stakeholders, develop leadership, and generate new energy, commitment and consensus around mission. Its primary product is not a written plan, but strategic thinking within the organization through a process of planning followed by a process of implementation. A well-conceived and managed planning process can be the most effective form of organizational development.


  • What benefits to expect from an effective strategic planning process
  • How to approach and structure a strategic planning process
  • How to get broad buy-in in any organization
  • Tools to use for assessing your situation, engaging your constituencies, developing an effective plan, and implementing it

July 13 3:00 pm EDT / noon PDT

Where’s the Return on Engagement? Measuring Social Media ROE
Debra Askanase, Founder and Engagement Strategist at Community Organizer 2.0

Everyone is talking about social media Return on Investment but measuring social media Return on Engagement (ROE) is what matters. New case studies and analysis show that real online engagement drives results. In this workshop, we’ll define status metrics that lead to ROE and engagement metrics, what kind of social media activities give the highest ROE, why it’s so important, and how to use that information to design your programs and social media implementation. We’ll also look at three ROE supportive case studies.


  • What social media activities produce the highest Return on Engagement and how to design higher ROE
  • Concrete examples of organizations implementing ROE-based social media and what they’ve learned
  • How to measure ROE

July 20

Nonprofit Finances: Its Mysteries Revealed–A Primer for Board Members
Alfonso Perillo, CPA, Edelstein & Company LLP

An introduction for trustees to accounting concepts that are unique to nonprofit organizations so that they can better exercise their fiduciary responsibilities.


  • Accrual vs. cash basis accounting
  • Concepts unique to nonprofit financial statements
  • Basic tools to understand an organization’s financial health
  • Understanding your state’s regulations relating to nonprofit organizations
  • Basic concepts about internal controls
  • Basic fraud prevention techniques

July 27

New Numbers on “Nonprofits” and Philanthropy
George McCully, CEO, Catalogue for Philanthropy

New numbers from Massachusetts prove that “nonprofit” is far from a synonym for “philanthropy”, and that the numbers we all have accepted are wrong by a factor of 10. If “philanthropy” is “private initiatives, for public good, focusing on quality of life, and engaged in public fundraising”, then only 3,500 out of the 38,500 Massachusetts nonprofits are philanthropic. George McCully will discuss the revolutionary data produced in developing the Massachusetts Philanthropic Directory.


  • “Nonprofit” does not mean “Philanthropic”
  • Philanthropic studies are about to be revolutionized
  • Professional philanthropists need to re-think their fields
  • Better data and knowledge will produce better control in understanding, management, and fundraising
  • Philanthropy is entering a new age

Volunteer Engagement
Multi-Generational Boards
Advancement Best Practices
Non-Profit/City Parnerships
Social Media Fundraising
Strategic Planning (part 2)
Get Your Board to Fundraise
Stewardship as Revenue Enhancer


Writing for the Web
Sharing Knowledge

For the full season schedule, and the archive of past webinars, visit

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mind your RFPs & Qs, Part 3: Process

The most important part of the RFP process is the work that goes into preparing to write the RFP. That’s when you articulate your needs, put them in context, resolve any internal differences of opinion, research comparable projects, and set a budget.

At that point the focus shifts to sharing the RFP with one or more service providers. You may choose to work with a provider in whom you have confidence from previous experience. In this case the purpose of the RFP is to frame the project as described above. This can save time and money and enhance the quality of the result, by briefing the service provider on your intentions and expectations before the beginning of the work.

Or, you may use the RFP as a briefing tool with a few service providers that have been recommended to you.

If you decide to use it as part of a competitive process, however, it will be bearing more weight as a stand-alone source of information. In this case the issues discussed in previous posts on Purpose and Structure & Content take on greater importance, along with considerations of process.

For a complex project, an RFP is usually not the best initial communication with prospective service providers. Developing a detailed proposal for a complex project requires significant investment by a service provider. You may not attract the best of them by asking for a lot of work before you have made the effort to learn whether they are the match you’re likely to want. You may be looking for a low bid, regardless of quality, or for a different approach from that taken by the provider. A busy service provider will choose to respond to prospective clients who come to them with more intentionality.

You may wish to start with a Request for Qualifications (RFQ). This will bring you preliminary information from service providers who may be interested in the project, and will give you enough information to narrow the field down to a small number for further consideration.

The best next step is often an interview. What you learn in an interview about approach, attitude, and personal chemistry will be another filter, giving you a second dimension of selectivity. If you interview three to five prospects and emerge with one to three candidates, you will be in a good position to ask your finalists for a detailed proposal, and to get their best effort in describing how they would configure the work, how long the project should take, the allocation of responsibilities, the deliverables, and the costs.

If you decide to solicit competitive proposals—with or without these preliminaries—there are some rules of protocol that will produce better results:

  • Be as open as you can with information and any needed clarification, both to attract the best providers and to enable them to give you their best (and most comparable) proposals. Give at least a budget range and/or a very precise scope of services (many good providers simply don’t respond if they would have to guess about the realism of your budget expectations). Reveal the number of providers you are asking for proposals. Mention the amount and kind of work you expect to be able to do in-house (by staff and/.or volunteers).
  • Give a date until which you will accept clarification questions from prospective providers, and note that you will share all questions and your answers with all prospective proposers.
  • If you have any positions on critical contractual provisions, you may want to share them with prospective proposers to make sure the ground rules are understood by all. And later you should make the RFP an addendum to the contract.
Depending on the kind of services at issue, there are many variations and details that could be added to this overview. But an understanding of these basics will offer a much more promising start to the process of procuring professional services.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mind your RFPs & Qs, Part 2: Structure & Content


The starting point for a good RFP can be a sample of one done for similar kinds of work, with emphasis on “starting point” and “similar”.

Often an organization will use as a template an RFP for very different kinds of work, with requirements that are not germane to the project at hand. This diverts focus from your requirements and objectives, and gives a signal that you’re really not clear about what you’re doing, which can be off-putting to the best service providers you most want to attract—and won't get you what you need.

Some RFPs are structured with lots of detailed questions and requirements for formatting answers. Responses to these RFPs may tell you a lot about how well the proposer pays attention to appropriate instructions and finesses others, but this approach also reduces the ability of responders to show how they structure their thinking. Since it takes extra effort to respond to this kind of RFP, and also sends a signal that you might be difficult to work with, the best providers, who can be selective about their clients, may decline to respond.


RFPs often omit information (e.g. scope of services, deliverables, time frame, budget) that is central both to creating and evaluating responses. Usually this is done with the intention of having the service provider reveal more about how she works or to get him to offer the lowest possible fee. While these intentions are understandable, and even sometimes effective, more often they can be impediments to getting the best results, for several reasons:

  • If you define as much as possible, you assure that the work is focused on your needs and not the accumulated assumptions of the service provider about the needs of others.
  • When multiple variables (scope of services, deliverables, time frame, budget) are left open, a responder has to incorporate guesswork into the proposal. This is a problem for both sides:
    • Proposers will not be able to bring their best judgment to bear on the project as you would like it done or can afford to do it, so the responses may be relevant to your needs.
    • If different proposers make their own independent assumptions, which may or may not be explicit, then proposals may not be comparable, handicapping the selection process.
    • Putting a good proposal together can take a substantial amount of time and effort. Many good providers, who get referrals from previous clients and from other consultants, or direct inquiries based on publications or conference presentations, do not find it worthwhile to invest the resources required to respond to RFPs that do not give sufficient guidance as to scope or budget.


Publically funded projects typically must be advertised and open for any provider to respond to. If that is not required of you, it can be much more effective to limit the distribution to a small number of providers that you have already identified as appropriate matches. The research you do to find your preferred list of providers will be good preparation for being an educated client. And as noted above, many of the best providers do not respond to open RFPs, especially when they are busy and don’t need to spend resources on speculative marketing efforts.

So overall, a more vague and broadly distributed RFP may limit the quality of the responses you’re likely to get.


Often competitive RFPs are thought of as a way to get services at the lowest possible cost. This is most likely to be effective if the other major variables (scope of services and deliverables) can be clearly defined. Otherwise you can compare (initial) price, but not value.

The best course of action if you don’t have any sense of what a project should cost, is to do enough research to give at least a range. Consultants will then be able to suggest a scope of work within that range or give extra options beyond it, or forego the opportunity to respond if the project is not within an appropriate range for them.

In some kinds of work (architecture or exhibit design, for example) professional fees are not the major portion of the budget, so a low fee is less important than the track record of the provider in keeping the whole project within budget.

What to expect

When you issue an RFP to and get proposals from multiple prospects, you will likely see different levels of responsiveness—from cut and paste boilerplate to thoughtful consideration of the issues you face and how to approach them. This will offer you some insights into the way the proposers work, and the clarity and quality of thought and communication.

If you have framed the proposal well, you may get to see thoughtful alternative approaches to the project.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Before You Hire an Architect

Thinking about tomorrow's webinar Before You Hire an Architect, some basic questions for a nonprofit considering new construction or renovation include:

  • Do you really need to build?
    You may need more space, but facilities are generally the most expensive and inflexible solution to a problem.
    1. Sometimes more creative scheduling is a way to get more from the space you have already.
    2. Or renting space can be more cost effective than buying or building.
    3. Do you have any under-used space that you could renovate for more intensive use?
  • Are you sufficiently clear about what you need and want?
    1. Do you know the size of spaces or the number of people you need to accommodate?
    2. Have you thought about the qualities of spaces, or the institutional identity you want to convey?
  • Do you know the kinds of decisions you’ll have to make along the way, and will you be ready to make them quickly to avoid delays and added costs?
  • Can you manage the full costs?
    1. It's important to understand the difference between construction cost (the figure known to the architect and contractor as the budget) and project cost, which includes site acquisition, fees, furnishings, equipment, a contingency fund, borrowing cost, and a maintenance fund.
    2. Beyond capital costs, new facilities incur ongoing operating expenses. Will you be able to manage those costs?
    3. Buildings need ongoing maintenance. You should assume full replacement over no more than 40 years. If you don’t budget for that you will be placing a serious future burden on the organization.

These are just a few of the essential questions you need to be able to answer before moving ahead. Hiring an architect before you are ready to answer them is like getting into a taxi and asking the driver to go somewhere without being able to tell him or her where you want to go or knowing how much it will cost. In both cases it's better to be very clear about what you want before the meter gets turned on. For more information see the webinar archive and articles on facility planning at

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Arguments Against Planning

I sat in on a strategy meeting recently for an organization with ten years of impressive accomplishments and a founder looking toward retirement. Its finances are very tight, so it needs to do some significant fundraising along with preparing for its next phase with a new executive director.

Several thoughtful, experienced committee members expressed doubts about the value of strategic planning at a moment when the organization needs to focus on fundraising and succession planning to assure survival.

The question I posed was whether this was really the time to take a pass on strategy, or to improvise without a plan. Even if the idea of strategic planning had been tainted by bad experiences, some strategic thinking and some sort of plan of action would seem to be exactly what was needed.

Even a narrow focus on fundraising and succession planning should lead to this conclusion.

  • The best case for fundraising is a good strategic plan. It can assure prospective donors that you know exactly what you need their money for, and will use it wisely. How can you raise money without a plan?
  • An organization with an important mission and committed members should not go into a leadership transition without adequate preparation. You are not a blank slate. If you can be clear about where you are, where you want to go, and how you think you might get there, you will be better able to:
    • define the characteristics and job description of the new leader
    • attract a strong candidate
    • offer a framework within which a new leader can be successful
    • pursue your mission through an approach conditioned by your experience

The argument is sometimes made that a new leader should have the leeway to shape an organization to his/her vision. Hogwash. A strong organization should focus its own vision first. There will still be plenty of room for a new CEO to exert leadership and engage his/her talents in moving the organization forward.

However obvious these points are to someone who advises others on strategy and planning, this was certainly not the first time I had heard the objections. A few days later, during a webinar I was presenting on strategic planning, I decided to pursue the question a bit further by asking the attendees what objections to strategic planning they had encountered.

Here are a few of them, with talking points:

In my organization, the volunteer board members do not see any tangible value in long range planning.

  1. Drop the term long-range: The term long-range planning has often been used interchangeably with strategic planning. A strategy should have some durability, but a long-range plan suggests to some trustees the need to predict conditions for an unreasonably extended period, and determine now what actions to take to address them. Avoid this terminology. Strategic planning is about understanding the present and setting out on a productive path, not locking into a long-term way of doing things.
  2. As for tangible value, there are many valuable, measurable, and immediate benefits to the process of strategic planning, and there are harsh penalties for not coming together to think and act strategically. See Critical Issues #1: Why Plan?, #5: The Structure of Planning, #7: On a Mission, #8: The Measure of Success.

People have been involved in so many ineffective processes that they are dismissive of strategic planning.

  1. Strategic planning has often been done badly for many reasons, most frequently because the process was not customized to the specific needs, resources, culture, experience, and motivations of the organization See Critical Issues #5: The Structure of Planning. That doesn’t mean you don’t need a strategy and a plan of action. Point that out. Find out what the failings were of the prior experience. Perhaps even call the process something other than strategic planning.
  2. Leadership is often required to counter resistance. The CEO and Board Chair should work together to convince others of value. They might draw on the experience of a consultant or a leader of another nonprofit that has gone through a successful planning process.

Planning takes a lot of time; the environment changing so fast that by the time you do the process, things have already had to be decided. Changes are quicker than process

  1. First, operations go on during a strategic planning process. The organization doesn’t get put on hold. The job of the planning process is to move as quickly as it can to produce decision support that will better position the organization.
  2. Second, not everything is in rapid flux. The organization’s mission and vision should have some stability, along with broadly stated mission-based goals. These goals are achieved though a set of shorter term supporting objectives with a frequently updated set of measurable actions required to achieve them. See Critical Issues #5: The Structure of Planning.
  3. There is no fixed length for a strategic planning process—or even a fixed process. As noted already, to be effective a strategic planning process must be customized to the specific needs, resources, culture, experience, and motivations of the organization. In some cases this suggests a very quick process to get started (see below), in others, an ongoing process of reevaluation of actions and objectives within a strategic framework.

My organization is very young, so we are still changing and exploring our model. I’m not sure at what point in an organization’s life cycle we are *supposed* to do an overall strategic plan.

  1. Now. Without a strategy, how can you assess options for what to do? It may be that your first strategic plan needs to be worked out quickly and not have too long a timeline. It may be thought of as a way, in your terms, to explore and test your model. With one struggling organization, I facilitated a weekend retreat that emerged with an almost complete strategic plan framing the work needed over the following six months, to ensure survival. With some ongoing strategic thinking, it could be refreshed for a while longer than that.
  2. Eventually, with growth and success, there will be a need to dig more deeply into a more robustly designed and implemented strategic planning process. See Critical Issues #1: Why Plan? But there is always a place to start, and the time is always right to be guided by a strategy.

People fear it will bring up major divisions/conflict about where our relatively young organization should put its efforts… or simply unrealistic goals.

  1. The basic issue here is the danger of avoiding open discussion of differences. Will divisions be reconciled more easily after they are further entrenched? With hidden unresolved conflict, how is a young organization going to mature successfully? See Critical Issues #2: The Secret Life of Surveys, #7: On a Mission.
  2. A good planning process develops ambitious yet achievable goals. Mission drives goals, which drive objectives, which drive actions. Along the way you examine assumptions and capabilities and adjust. See Critical Issues #8: The Measure of Success. If you can’t be realistic when working out a strategy, are you more likely to have that wisdom in the heat of day-to-day demands?

We don’t have the capacity to enact the plan we come up with! (all volunteer organization) It will just make more work for everyone.

  1. A good plan should push everyone to work smarter, not harder. The process should identify—and eliminate—activities that are not critical to operations or mission, or ones that are too big a stretch for current resources and stage of development.
  2. You might even have to refine your thinking about the breadth of your mission. As noted above, if you can’t be realistic when working out a strategy, are you more likely to have that wisdom in the heat of day-to-day demands?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spring series of (free) nonprofit webinars

The spring schedule of Wednesday Webinars at NonProfitWebinars is now being finalized, with some great new presenters and offerings.

March Webinars:

Introducing the Philanthropic Directory
George McCully, Philanthropic Directory
Wednesday, March 23, 1:00 to 2:00 EDT
The Philanthropic Directory is a new on-line operating system for philanthropy. For the first time, it presents all philanthropic charities, systematically searchable and analyzable by the first taxonomy of philanthropic fields, demographics of people served, location, revenue size, and date of IRS authorization, with links to their websites. Philanthropy is on the verge of becoming systematic.

Effective Online Storytelling
Allan Pressel, CharityFinders
Wednesday, March 23, 3:00 to 4:00 EDT
How you can most effectively tell your nonprofit’s story online – in a way that will make your website visitors believe in your mission and want to support it.

Effective Strategic Planning Part 2: Getting Results
Sam Frank, Synthesis Partnership
Wednesday, March 30, 1:00 to 2:00 EDT
Strategic planning has a dicey reputation for any number of reasons:
1) it often is tedious and time-consuming;
2) the issues it identifies are either obvious or not critical to the mission (or both);
3) the actions it specifies are vague and unmeasurable;
4) it is ignored once the plan is written (or the written plan is never quite finished);
5) it simply adds tasks to an already over-stretched staff;
6) it has no results visible to stakeholders;
7) it does not advance your mission.
These problems are not inherent to strategic planning; they are signs that it has been done badly. This webinar will look at how a nonprofit can infuse its mission into the daily activity of staff and board through a straightforward, rigorous, and even morale-building process. It will offer both a structure and tools for planning.

Grant Writing 101 - Preparing a Successful Proposal
John Izzo, Community Grants Associates
Wednesday, March 30, 3:00 to 4:00 EDT
Grant writing is part science, part art. While most people prefer dental surgery to grant writing, the process is fairly painless if you follow a few of the simple steps discussed in this seminar. While this seminar focuses on federal grant applications, the same process can apply to state, foundation, corporate or other types of response to a request for proposals.

April to June Webinars

-- Leaders' Writing Circle, Dalya Massachi, Writing for Community Success
-- WordPress for NonProfits, Jann Mirchandani, Marketing Cafe
-- Structuring Nonprofit Businesses, Brian Howe, Vox Legal
-- Major Gift Strategies that Work, Rod Miller, ExecIAE
-- Setting Up an Online Store, CJ Lucke, Public Remix
-- Get Results: Traffic, Leads, Donations, Katharine Coles, Mad Marketeer
-- Deeply Informative Reference Checks, Laura Gassner Otting, NPAG
-- Things You Shouldn't Be Paying For, Shauna Carey, The Extraordinaries
-- Grant Funding Forecast 2011 & Beyond, Renee Bourque, Bright Star Grant Consultants
-- Decisions Before, During, and After a Crisis, John Hilley, Patmos Consulting
-- Crowdsourcing vs Community-Sourcing, Amy Sample Ward, TechSoup
-- Program Evaluation Essentials, Cecilia Harry, Economic Development Coordinator
-- Before You Hire an Architect, Sam Frank, Synthesis Partnership
-- Effective Marketing Communications, Michele Levy, brand strategy consulting
-- Online Networks/Offline Community Building, Peggy Duvette, WiserEarth
-- Newsletters, Tina Cincotti, Funding Change

For the full season schedule, and the archive of past webinars, visit

Monday, February 21, 2011

More on Metrics

In between writing an article on metrics (Critical Issues #8: The Measure of Success) and preparing for an upcoming webinar on the same topic, I happened to read two illuminating articles on higher education in the New York Review of Books.

Andrew Hacker, in “Where Will We Find the Jobs?” (February 24, 2011), challenges many quantitative measures in the six books he reviews, some for their validity, others for the ways they seem to be misused. But he makes many of his points with other measures, such as income disparities. He ends with a call for increasing student retention as a solution to the demand for a more educated workforce. This would require more funding for more individual attention in teaching and advising students. To this end “our colleges will have to examine many wasteful, perfunctory, and senseless practices.” While he alludes in passing to overspending on athletics, he identifies—in this article, at least—neither the scale of funding required for his vision nor the wasteful practices sufficient to cover it. He does, though, make it clear that transforming his argument into action would require quantitative exploration of qualitative judgments.

While Hacker’s approach is to embrace metrics as a tool to achieving qualitative goals, Simon Head focuses in “The Grim Threat to British Universities” (January 13, 2011) on the misuse of metrics and "management systems" by benighted bureaucrats. Out of Harvard Business School, by way of McKinsey, came the Balanced Scorecard and its Key Performance Indicators. This tool and others like it, Head tells us, have been wielded with a heavy hand by the government functionaries in charge of funding higher education, to measure performance in research, scholarship and teaching as if they were manufacturing operations with goals limited to productivity and return on investment. Head sees this state of affairs as the diastrous triumph of small minded managers running amok through fields of knowledge and substituting mediocrity for excellence, to the detriment of the nation.

Head appears to be describing a genuinely destructive phenomenon, but he does not distinguish among (1) tools, (2) the material to which they are applied, and (3) how they are used (see CI #8: The Measure of Success).

Business Process Reengineering or Total Quality Management cannot simply be dragged in one piece from business into the nonprofit sector by a forceful trustee or a second-career chief financial officer newly transported from a corporate job. These tools have often been misunderstood and used poorly even in their business setting, and they require all the more thought about where, how and to what to apply them if they are to be used in a nonprofit.

A Key Performance Indicator in a profit driven business culture may simply be widgets produced or precisely calculated return on investment. In CI #8: The Measure of Success and in the webinar "Why Metrics Matter" I point out how to connect measurable actions to qualitative outcomes through a hierarchy of questions. The process may be asymptotic rather than direct, but it’s still a critical tool.

On a nonprofit board, the disagreement between people who focus single mindedly on measurable performance or budget, and those who reject the notion that the intangibles of mission can be quantified, cannot really be resolved. It can only be managed as an ongoing (positive) dynamic tension. If there is a shared commitment to a cause, these two positions are both essential to organizational achievement. The trick is to bring both sides to understand the shortcomings of their own position and the strengths of the other.

Having worked with many boards facing this dichotomy, I can testify that within a nonprofit board—in contrast to the toxic contemporary political environment addressed by Simon Head—bringing apparently opposed positions together in mutual understanding is actually easier than it sounds.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Critical Issues #8: The Measure of Success

In the mission-driven world of nonprofits, emphasis is usually placed on qualitative values rather than quantitative ones (the intangibles of human dignity, spirituality, education, or the arts, rather than revenue or market share). If the truly important things are qualitative, how can quantitative measures be meaningful to us? How can the real value of what we stand for be measured in any meaningful way?

Quantitative measures are not a substitute for qualitative goals. When developed and used thoughtfully, however, they are essential tools to assist in reaching them. As noted elsewhere in this series—Critical Issues #5: The Structure of Planning, and #7: On a Mission—a sequence of “how are we going to do that?” questions will lead you from mission to measurable actions. These will offer some important performance measures, but they are not the only bridge between mission and metrics.

For a look at why and how metrics are important to nonprofits, what to measure and how to make use of the data take a look at Critical Issues #8: The Measure of Success.